by Ahmed Shoreibah
JanUARY 31, 1986
I was a junior in high school when the first space shuttle, the Columbia, went up in April 1981.
“Oh, my God.”
That was the reaction of most of us to the news Tuesday that Challenger, the second of the four space shuttles in the NASA program, had exploded in midair, 74 seconds and 10 miles into what would have been its tenth mission into space.
A sense of disbelief followed.
They’re always so careful. How could something like that happen?
We’ve been accustomed to NASA’s flawless missions and incredible advances for so long now that we had forgotten that the road to space exploration was paved with setbacks and disasters, with sacrifice and risk. Those of us of college age, particularly, rarely are able to recall anything but the space program’s triumphs.
After all, when our society wishes to review the success story of our advances into space, we choose to only remember what went right. We are given the impression that a success story is, well, a succession of successes. It’s no use being hung up on old failures, right?
As a nation, we have only been in space for 25 years. We are on the brink of a new era in the history of the human species. It is understandable, then, that we are awed by it all.
And we are proud of our achievements; we have every right to be.
Each space shuttle, needless to say, is more than a costly heap of metal and electronics, with humans tagging along, that we send up to make our lives on this planet better.
The shuttles, as does the rest of the space program, represent our ambitions to literally go beyond our limits, to not be held back by physical or mental constraints, to overcome our most tenacious obstacles, to be true to the nature of our race. Part of us goes up with each of the program’s human participants on all shuttle flights.
But we must never allow ourselves to get the feeling that we have conquered our world, that we are its rulers. For, as this latest tragedy poignantly reminds us, we are far more fragile than the condition in which we live.
In the words of novelist Ann Beattie: “[The Challenger tragedy] calls attention to the fact there’s a great big world out there. Imagination pales in comparison with the real stuff.”
The ancient Greeks knew well the destruction wrought by the human frailty they called hybris, a word which for them denoted misplaced arrogance resulting from excessive pride. A human guilty of hybris in the end cannot hope to escape the fearful consequences, the Greek tragedians consistently warned. But the people of the Aegean also knew, better than anyone else of their time, the greatness to which humans can aspire.
It is a delicate balance. In the future, we will proceed further and further, as we must, into realms we have yet to explore- but while we do so, we should not dare to forget, or simply leave behind as an inconvenience, the road to our present. It is only then that we have a sense of perspective.
It is only then that we will be able to make some sense of our world. For those who do understand the past, the lesson of Tuesday is this: In the final analysis, triumph will not come without tragedy.
“In the long run, this shows us that the best things in life aren’t free,” said Daniel J. Boorstin, a noted historian and the present librarian of Congress, reflecting on the ill-fated Challenger mission.
Ahmed Shoreibah graduated from UM in 1986 and lives in Lakeland, Fla. He is a doctor at the Watson Clinic.